Civil society reviews local government

Wednesday, 7 May, 2008 - 05:45

While more South Africans than ever before have access to basic services like water and sanitation, most people perceive local government to be in crisis.

While more South Africans than ever before have access to basic services like water and sanitation, most people perceive local government to be in crisis, with many municipalities incapable of managing finances, delivering basic services and complying with legislation.

Even so, over the last 10 years, local government legislation has become entrenched with ordinary people participating directly in their own governance. The success of two local government elections has also marked the consolidation of formal political democracy at local level.

These are the findings of a report which reviews local governments in South Africa. “Local Democracy in Action” was compiled by the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN), a group of 14 non-profit organisations that have programmes focusing on local governance. The 105-page report is co-authored by Dr Stephen Rule and members of the 14 NGOs. The GGLN is co-ordinated by the Foundation for Contemporary Research based in the Western Cape.

The review follows four workshops, which took place over the past 18 months, in which the network assessed the state of local government, identified problem areas and worked on solutions. The findings were compiled in a 105-page document, co-authored by Dr Stephen Rule and members of all the NGOs.

Terence Smith, the coordinator of the GGLN, said inspiration for the review came at a time when those working with local governments recognised there was a need to collectively document and share their experience. “The aim is to provide a better understanding of South Africa's local governments, highlighting achievements but also the challenges that lie ahead,” he said. The review, which is intended to be critical but constructive, provides a baseline for ongoing assessment and engagement. “We won't be writing one of these every year,” says Smith, “but we will be updating every second or third year.”

“Local Democracy in Action” is the first report, by “civil society”, of post-apartheid local government and comes at a time when the government is busy with its own review of local and provincial structures. Rule writes in the opening pages that, “this review can claim with confidence that the views expressed in the report, if not fully representative, are at least indicative of organised civil society in South Africa.”

The report acknowledges in its opening lines that effective delivery of basic municipal services is one of the government's “critical ongoing challenges” and that a lot more needs to be done to encourage public participation.

“Services (water, electricity, sanitation, refuse removal, roads) are close to the heart of every citizen and failure to meet needs of this nature cannot be contemplated even in the medium term,” says the review. It is up to civil society, through groups like the Good Governance Learning Network, to play a role in ensuring that local government is empowered to achieve this mandate.

To date national government has focused mostly on the technical aspects of supporting local government at the expense of any “meaningful engagement” by ordinary people. There is still a lot of work to be done and, given its “legacies, capacity and fiscal constraints and contested place in the intergovernmental system” finishing the task will take “political determination” and “policy innovation.”

The review suggests that public participation can be a major contributor in developing the effectiveness of local government. “This should be occurring much more systematically in the setting of municipal priorities by means of integrated development planning, the review of local government performance and the delivery of services,” it states. Political dialogue and compromise are key to resolving the different needs of the country's broad spectrum of citizens. There also needs to be a clear understanding of the political and the technical responsibilities that define municipal management and enable those in these jobs to ensure they meet the developmental needs of all citizens.

The report is divided into three easy-to-follow sections: democracy, responsiveness and accountability; planning and budgeting; and equitable service delivery and poverty reduction. At the beginning of each chapter the reader is asked key questions which are answered through practical examples supported by research. At the end of each chapter key points highlight the main messages.

One question, raised in the first section on democracy, responsiveness and accountability, asks to what extent members of the public trust municipalities? The answer includes research provided by the Human Sciences Research Council that shows most people have little faith in their local government. One exception is a higher tolerance for weak local government in the Eastern Cape apparently based on the sentiment that ‘we are all in it together’. This chapter also discusses the rights of citizens to be involved in local government with emphasis on ward committees. The frustrations of ordinary “voiceless” citizens who became violent when their needs are not addressed was described through the example of the murder of a Free State councillor Ntai Mokoena who was hacked to death by a mob in a service delivery riot. A fair portion of this chapter looks at corruption, highlighting the public perception that local government is a “hotbed of corruption” despite the country's extensive framework of anti-corruption legislation and policy.

The second section deals with planning and budgeting, looking specifically at the Integrated Development Plan or IDP as the leading instrument of local planning. It discusses the importance of meaningful public participation and the ongoing problem of inadequate stakeholder capacity.

The final section looks at service delivery with research painting a positive picture. The questions look at the reduction of poverty in South Africa and how access to basic services has changed. Using a recent report by the presidency the authors point out that the number of people living below the breadline (R3000p/a) is dropping and that there has been a significant improvement in access to services especially housing, water and sanitation.

“Local Democracy in Action” is a much needed assessment of South Africa's system of local government. That it was complied by NGO's representing “civil society” means it is frank and without government “spin”. It's not all doom and gloom but the negative perceptions of the public and the practical problems facing local government are discussed honestly. This is a must read for anyone interested in how municipalities work and the challenges faced by South African communities everywhere as they grapple with local government.

The report was launched on 8 May at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. Funding for the research was provided by the United States-based Ford Foundation and CS Mott Foundation as well as the German Agency for Technical Co-operation (GTZ). Copies are free and already available online at: or contact the Foundation for Contemporary Research on (021) 418-4173.

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